PHNOM PENH — Acid is increasingly becoming a personal weapon of choice, especially against women. In the last 15 years, it has been estimated that more than 3,200 acid-throwing attacks were recorded in countries as varied as Bangladesh, Britain, Colombia, Pakistan and Uganda, totaling an estimated 3,500 victims in that time period.
The numbers are estimated to be much higher, however, as many cases go unrecorded. Ashamed, the victims and their families often do not file complaints to authorities. Yet, countries are starting to enact laws to stop acid violence. These steps seem to be working.
Bangladesh was the first country to pass a law banning acid violence, in 2002. Once known to be the country with the highest number of such attacks and the highest incident rates for women, it has since experienced a drastic drop in the frequency of acid assaults. Although the lower numbers cannot be directly attributed to the law, Selina Ahmed, the executive director of the Acid Survivors Foundation in Dhaka, the capital, said that it had an effect.
“People are much more aware about it, and to some extent enacting laws worked to reduce effectively acid attacks and the number of victims,” Ahmed said. In Bangladesh, acid attacks decreased dramatically to 59 occurrences in 2015 from 494 in 2002, according to Ahmed’s foundation.
The new law in Bangladesh imposes the death penalty for perpetrators of acid violence, yet changing people’s attitudes has been difficult. Acid violence in Bangladesh is influenced by underlying discriminatory practices inflicted on women and girls in general. Four to five attacks take place a month.
Ahmed said that this form of violence cuts across cultural and religious barriers and ultimately hurts a woman’s right to fully participate in society, which may be the attackers’ original intent. “It has the effect of denying women important rights, such as economic and social well-being, political participation, personal fulfillment and self-worth.”
Acid violence remains a difficult phenomenon to explain and to categorize. Globally, many of the countries where acid violence is prevalent have unacceptable levels of violence, especially against women and girls.
“The fact is that the majority of victims globally are women,” said Jaf Shah, the executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International in London. “The fact is that the majority of women are attacked in the face.” This, he explained, “is a deliberate attack to maim and disfigure a woman’s appearance. To destroy their identity and render them unattractive.”
Motives cited for acid attacks often include rejection of sexual advances or marriage proposals. These reasons appear to be common particularly in Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Nepal and Pakistan.
In Colombia, approximately 100 acid attacks occur each year, making it one of the highest rates in the world. As such, the country has strengthened its legislative framework and enacted a law in January to impose sentences of 12 to 50 years in jail to perpetrators of such crimes.
“The Colombian government should be applauded,” Shah said. “However, much more work needs to be done to ensure cases are investigated thoroughly and sensitively by the security forces and that the judiciary apply harsher sentencing. The key is to ensure cases actually lead to court and in turn result in successful prosecution.”
Sarah Knibbs, the deputy director of UN Women in Cambodia, said that cultural norms play an important part in the perception of violent acts like acid being thrown in your face.
“An interesting paradox [in Cambodia, for example] is that a majority of people know that domestic violence is against the law, but at the same time a significant minority still believe that in some cases, it is justified for men to hit their wives.” According to a UN Women survey on women’s health and life experience in Cambodia, almost half of Cambodian women find justification for a partner hitting a woman.
Besides Bangladesh and Colombia, Cambodia adopted a law against acid violence to criminalize and penalize perpetrators. A year after it was passed in 2012, the country also passed regulations governing the sale and use of concentrated acid. Such legislation has caused the number of attacks to drop to 6 victims in 2014 from 36 in 2010.
According to the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, based here in the capital, intimate-partner violence accounts for 45 percent of motives behind the attacks. “Perpetrators commit [this type of violence] to maintain control over their partners — and feel entitled to do so by negative attitudes that are perpetuated in society.”
In a research paper on the topic, “Achieving Justice for the Survivors of Acid Violence in Cambodia,” Sharon Beijer, a consultant on rule of law, governance and other related issues, said that gender violence was partly connected to Cambodia’s war-torn past.
“These wars and periods of conflict have not only reduced the number of men in comparison with the number of women, but also resulted in a considerable number of Cambodians experiencing violence and death — possibly contributing to a society in which violence is perceived as acceptable,” she wrote.
The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity noted that 48 percent of acid-attack victims are perpetrated against men, and 52 percent against women. As for the perpetrators, the charity contends that the attacks are meted out equally between men and women, echoing Beijer’s findings on the tolerance of violence in Cambodia.
Surprisingly, acid attacks are happening more in Europe. In Britain, the Acid Survivors Trust International recorded a 30 percent increase in corrosive substance related crimes in 2015. Shah, the executive director, attributes them to gang-linked activities and crimes. Most of the victims were young men.
Usually, Shah said, “the common denominator for countries with the highest rates of attack tend to be [ones with] high levels of human rights abuses and gender discrimination, easy availability of acid, ineffective and/or corrupt policing and judicial systems.”
But Britain does not fit that description. “I have asked that the British government conduct research in the subject in order to understand why attacks are increasing, and based on the research, identify and implement appropriate interventions to prevent attacks occurring,” Shah said. He said he was not aware of any research done so far by the government, but that David Cameron, the prime minister, urged judges last fall to get tough on perpetrators to stamp out the “hideous” crime and introduce stricter control on acid sales.
“Concentrated acid can be purchased from shops fairly easy without ID and cheaply,” Shah said. “I have been advocating for tighter controls on the sale of acid in the UK; this has also been taken up by two British newspapers.” He warned against linking acid attacks to immigrant communities, especially because there is little data on such crimes.
Acid attacks in Britain are not new, he added, describing the earliest recorded acid assaults originating there in the early 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, when acid was first produced on a mass scale to treat metals. Acid was used as a weapon to settle arguments, including labor disputes. A young man named Hugh Kennedy was hanged by a British court sentence for attacking a fellow worker with acid.
Isolated attacks have also popped up in other parts of Europe, Canada and the United States. Italy, for example, recorded six attacks over a six-month period. Victims of these attacks were women and perpetrators were men, often former partners.
Clothilde Le Coz is an independent journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who specializes in social, political and human-rights issues. She is a media development consultant for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and formerly worked as the Washington D.C. director for Reporters Without Borders. She has an M.A. in international relations and journalism and a B.A. in political science, both from SciencesPo in Grenoble, France. She also has a bachelor in philosophy from the Sorbonne.